Chemistry Student's Research Could Help Fight Crime

June 13, 1996

Cincinnati -- A senior chemistry student at the University of Cincinnati has developed a new forensics technique for identifying the source of inks on letters, checks, and other documents.

Annette McManus took on the project as part of UC's undergraduate research program. Working with graduate student Ellen Rohde and Distinguished Research Professor William Heineman, McManus accomplished something FBI scientists had not done yet.

She adapted a technique known as capillary electrophoresis, so it could be used to separate and identify various water-based inks. McManus said the idea wasn't new, but no other research team was able to make the process work.

"Dr. Heineman talked to someone in the FBI lab, and the scientists said they had worked on it some and didn't have good results at all."

McManus jumped into the project anyway. She says she's always been interested in forensics and originally planned to become a coroner. So, she kept modifying the technique, studying the scientific literature, and getting suggestions from other scientists until she hit on just the right combination of conditions.

"We changed the length of the capillary and a few of the running conditions, and we got some really good results."

The results were so good, McManus was able to present her research findings at the American Chemical Society's national meeting this spring. She was the only UC undergraduate to do so.

"It was really exciting," said McManus. "A lot of people were interested in the project, people who had done research in the same area, and I got a lot of response from people in general."

The Internal Revenue Service was also interested in McManus' findings, and she has sent them a copy of her results. Right now, she says she can successfully distinguish differences among all 14 water-based inks in her collection. In addition, her method only requires a very tiny amount of ink for testing. Professor Heineman says the technique works with no more ink than you find in a single letter of the alphabet. The goal is to need only the ink in the dot over the letter "i."

Whether or not the new technique is ever adopted by forensics labs, McManus says the project has given her valuable laboratory experience and an edge on other chemists graduating this June.

"It counts as job experience. That's been a major focus on interviews, the research. If I had just taken classes, I'm sure no one would have asked me `How was that separations class?'"

McManus received a bachelor's of science degree in chemistry during the University of Cincinnati commencement ceremonies Friday, June 7.
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University of Cincinnati

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